State of Texas: Power and responsibility for the winners on Election Day

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Election Day brought big victories for Texas Republicans and disappointment for Texas Democrats.

At the top of the ticket, Donald Trump earned 5.8 million votes in Texas and beat Joe Biden by six percentage points in the state. Senator John Cornyn also earned a decisive victory for his fourth term in the Senate with more than 5.9 million votes, beating challenger MJ Hegar by nearly 10 percentage points.

After the win, Cornyn called for unity.

“Whether I earned your vote or whether you were pulling for my opponent, I’m honored and committed to serving and representing all Texans,” Cornyn said. “My goal as your United States Senator is simple: continue to make Texas a place of exceptional opportunity for all.”

Texas Republicans also held on to every one of their seats in the House. One of the most disappointing losses for Democrats came in Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, where Tony Gonzalez beat Gina Ortiz Jones. Democrats had hoped to win that seat after incumbent Republican Will Hurd announced he would not run for re-election.

District 23 stretches from San Antonio to the outskirts of El Paso and down to the border.

In several predominantly-Latino border counties, Joe Biden’s margins of victory were slimmer than Hillary Clinton’s in 2016. Biden won Webb, Hidalgo, Cameron, and El Paso counties, but not by the margins Democrats had hoped would make him more competitive in the state.

Texas Republican Party Chair Allen West told us he believes the slimmer margins come because Trump has resonated with minority voters.

“I think that the Hispanic community as well as the Black community connected with President Trump based on principles and values,” West said.

“The fact that they saw the lowest unemployment numbers in the Hispanic and Black communities on record… when you talk about strength of family, Judeo Christian faith, small business entrepreneurship, those are the means by which we were able to connect with people down there in the Rio Grande Valley.”

With record turnout across party lines this year, both Republicans and Democrats increased their vote totals in those counties.

Ed Espinoza of Progress Texas believes Biden didn’t lose Latino voters, but rather lost rural voters.

“These Latino communities, while they’re heavy Latino counties, they are also heavily rural counties,” he said. “Around Texas last night Donald Trump picked up 400,000 more votes in the rural parts of Texas than four years ago. So it makes sense that he very well could have brought out new rural voters in these communities.”

In what may amount to the greatest surprise among Democratic losses, the party also also failed to gain any ground in the Texas House. The party flipped one seat, Texas House District 134 in Houston, but lost a seat as well. Republicans still hold a 16-seat majority in the 150-member House.

This failure to flip will likely have a long-term impact.

This year, the Texas Legislature will draw the district lines that will determine representation for the next ten years. Unified control over both chambers and the Governor’s office, and a lack of federal oversight, will give Texas Republicans unbridled discretion over a decade of representation.

Texas Democrats did get one win that has potential to affect the balance of power across the hall, however. State Representative Roland Gutierrez successfully flipped Senate District 19 to replace Republican incumbent Pete Flores, giving Democrats 13 of the 31 seats in the Texas Senate.

Senate rules require 19 votes to pass legislation. With Gutierrez’ win, Republicans are one vote short.

That could change, of course. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick leads the Senate, and he said earlier this year that he would push to change the rule and require fewer votes to push legislation through.

Now, Texas Republicans must wield their maintained power to confront historic issues this session. Lawmakers must find a way to sustain unprecedented funding for public schools, all while facing serious financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Politics reporter John Engel spoke with teachers and lawmakers to find out where those cuts could be felt.

Jayne Serna, a 31-year veteran teacher, says the roller coaster of a teacher’s salary has a direct impact on mental health and the classroom environment.

“The financial stress is a real thing,” she said. “There’s a point at which it doesn’t make sense to keep teaching.”

The Texas Legislature has to figure out how to pay for a $2 billion increase in public schools, including pay raises for teachers, in a plan they approved in 2019 with no permanent funding. It’s tied to a budget surplus that succumbed to COVID-19.

Republican State Representative and former school administrator Gary VanDeaver said the legislature must make good on its promise to teachers.

“I think we have to achieve meeting our obligation, meeting our promise that we made in House Bill three when it comes to teacher pay and funding out of our public schools,” he said. “It’s very important that we not pull any of that back at least nothing substantial, that would harm programs. So I think that is our first commitment.”

Yet, he does expect cuts to be made. He says pay raises and incentives for teachers may need to be paused.

“Anyone that thinks that education is getting out of this session totally unscathed, I think you’re dreaming,” he said. “I’m not saying let’s do away with them. I’m saying let’s press the pause button, push it out two more years, buy some time to allow the economy to come back. I believe when the economy comes back, it’s going to come back roaring.”

He knows that his party, with all the power, is on the hook for the solution.

“There is a huge responsibility that goes with that,” he said. “The state has endorsed the leadership, at least for now. And so we have to step up and lead… we have made the commitment to our public schools and a lot of my colleagues ran on that, were elected on that were re-elected on that. And we have to make good on that promise. And I think we will.”

Some districts like Austin ISD gave raises this year, while others stuck with bonuses due to uncertainty of where that money will come from in the future.

“I think there’s hope,” Serna said. “But what I worry about is that that won’t happen quickly enough for people in the next year or two… do I stay in the profession?”

Race for the Speaker

When the GOP’s grip on power ended the hopes of Democrats running for Texas House Speaker, Beaumont Republican Dade Phelan walked through the open door.

He now says he quickly amassed a majority of votes to wield the gavel this upcoming session.

“I’m here to say I am humbled and honored that I have the support to be the next speaker,” he said this week. “It’s not about politics. It’s not about vote records. It’s not about policy, really, it’s not about where you’re from. It’s about trust. And I think the majority of this list right here that will continue to grow, they trust me. And I put my trust in them as well.”

Former State Representative Larry Gonzales, a Republican from Round Rock, says the Speaker’s race is incredibly important to determine who will appoint committee chairs, decide the legislation to debate, and set the agenda.

“As far as how he gets there. I mean, Representative Phelan is a good member. He’s respected and trusted by Democrats and Republicans alike,” he said.

“When he was elevated to the position of state affairs Chairman, last session, which is a very difficult job with huge responsibilities, he proved to the members that he can do it,” he said. “So now when he says, I want this next position, will you help me get there? The answer was yes. And it’s done. Yes, he is a speaker-elect, Dade Phelan.”

Gonzalez pinpoints the top three issues facing the next session as the budget, re-districting, and COVID-19 policies, all of which will be made more difficult by severe budget shortfalls.

In 2019, Speaker Dennis Bonnen took a bipartisan approach to appointing the Speaker Pro-Tempore and committee chairs. Gonzales foresees a similar approach this year.

“Seeing how split and evenly divided we are across this country, I think a little bit of bipartisanship would certainly go a long way,” he said. “I look for this particular legislative session, to heal some of those wounds in Texas, to look for a collaborative cooperative effort. I think that’s going to extend into committee assignments and leadership roles.”

Paying for Public Safety

The Texas Department of Public Safety is asking for $146.4 million in enhancements to communications between law enforcement agencies in the state and upgrades to security at the State Capitol.

The requests, outlined in the agency’s legislative appropriations request — a biennial budget document presented to lawmakers — cite additional needs to prevent mass casualty attacks in public places and protect the buildings from which the state’s government operates.

DPS director Col. Steve McCraw presented the agency’s legislative appropriations request in a joint budget hearing on Friday morning.

DPS referenced threats of “wide spread and violent civil disorder” stemming from spring and summer protests, as significant externality for its reasoning. Gov. Greg Abbott deployed thousands of state troopers to major cities and landmarks around Texas “to protect the right for people to protest peacefully by deter rioting, looting and violent attacks between protest groups and lone actors,” DPS director Col. Steve McCraw wrote in the agency budget request.

“There is a strong desire by these anarchist insurgents to ransack and destroy the Capitol using whatever means possible, including incendiary devices,” McCraw indicated.

DPS requested $32.9 million earmarked for preventing mass casualty attacks in public places, to be used for training and upgrades to communication systems between local and state law enforcement.

According to the agency report, DPS Threat Analysts and Special Agents were “successful in preventing at least four mass attacks in public places over the last 18 months.” McCraw did not offer further details on those thwarted attacks in his report.

Texas led the nation with six active shooter attacks resulting in 35 deaths and 51 serious injuries in 2019, McCraw stated, including the domestic terrorism attack at an El Paso Walmart and a shooting in Midland/Odessa. McCraw said seven of Texas’ 13 mass attacks in public places over the last 50 years occurred in the past four years. As the agency has focused efforts on preventing future violence, “more needs to be done to detect and interdict threats to life,” he stated.

“The governor and legislature has made it clear to us that there is no more important responsibility in government than protecting its citizens,” McCraw said during Friday’s hearing.

DPS requested $39.1 million for enhancements to Capitol security, due to threats by violent actors that have “substantially escalated” and are “expected to increase over the next three years,” McCraw wrote. He stated the agency would use $36.3 million to pay for 65 troopers, five agents and two analysts, as well as $1.8 million in equipment which includes panic button notifications, x-ray technology, video cameras and gunshot detection capability. The agency wishes to spend $1 million to enhance bomb dog capabilities through its canine unit.

McCraw stated the agency needs the additional staffing and equipment “to obtain an adequate level of security at the Capitol and its grounds and the Capitol Complex…”

$47.2 million of the DPS request would be used on updating cybersecurity programs and replacing outdated IT systems.

“The risk of a catastrophic cybersecurity failure is far too high in the current and foreseeable environment,” McCraw wrote.

“Not only are Troopers and Rangers and special agents a target of physical attacks, but the agency is a target of cyber attacks from hacktivists and others that seek to take down our systems,” he said during Friday’s hearing.

Critics of the agency’s spending worry the newly-unveiled priorities are ousting other important ones in need of attention.

“I wish we were seeing a lot more urgency about the crime labs,” Scott Henson, executive director of criminal justice reform organization Just Liberty, said, referencing a backlog in cases.

“I think the vast majority of the public wishes everyone were much more concerned about are the long lines at the driver’s license centers,” Henson added, noting trouble with driver license office wait times even prior to the pandemic.

DPS Officers Association leadership contends no matter what hand troopers are dealt, they’ll answer the call.

“You can’t put a dollar amount on it,” DPSOA president Richard Jankovsky said. “Because you can’t afford for it to fail at the time that you need it most.”

Jankovsky noted his association is seeking trooper pay increases, which was not on the agency’s top priority list.

“If nothing is done this session, we are going on a decade since they have addressed the pay,” Jankovsky said. “Yet our job responsibility in our job mission has changed entirely.”

DPS requested more than $12 million to pay for additional recruit schools “address a spate of vacancies that will occur as a result of hiring decisions made over 30 years ago,” according to McCraw. In 1990, the agency did not conduct a recruit school for four years, and because DPS loses an average of 160 officers to retirements, resignations and terminations each year, upcoming retirement eligibilities sparked this funding need, McCraw revealed.

The final highlight of the request is $15 million to maintain the more than 360 buildings the agency owns across Texas. McCraw cited a facilities condition assessment which found the agency is in need of $230 million in maintenance to its structures around the state.

“While not enough to address the Department’s deferred maintenance (DM) needs, $15 million will enable us to address the most critical DM projects to avoid office closures and disruptions in services, including critical facilities such as Driver License and Highway Patrol offices,” McCraw stated in his request.

Other externalities included the COVID-19 pandemic, during which state troopers were tasked with inspecting travelers into the state at airports and at the Texas-Louisiana border.

The DPS legislative appropriations request, dated Oct. 9, can be viewed on the agency website, and the joint budget hearing can be viewed on the Texas House of Representatives website.

Foster Care Funds

Two state agencies in charge of foster care in Texas have requested a combined $75 million to cover costs associated with a decade-old federal lawsuit.

A federal judge warned state officials in September that they could again be held in contempt of court if reforms to the foster care system weren’t implemented.

The Texas Dept. of Family and Protective Services presented a request to the legislature Thursday for $38 million in Fiscal Years 2022-23 to comply with the lawsuit.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which is also named in the lawsuit, requested $37 million to cover costs over the same period.

“It’s going to cover things like fines, fees, and some of the agency costs, but it really isn’t going to cover some of what’s needed, some of the changes that are needed, to make sure that things are safer and better for kids,” Kate Murphy of Texans Care for Children said.

A hearing is expected soon when a federal judge will again determine if the state is not compliant with the court’s orders.

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